ASK FATHER: Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit?

From a reader…


I have known many people who will change “Holy Ghost” to “Holy Spirit” the moment they come across it in a prayer, about as readily as they may switch “thee, thou and thy” to “you, you, and your.” I know that changing the words of a prayer because you don’t like something is wrong, but this goes both ways. Can a person legitimately revert back to the use of “Holy Ghost” in, say, private use of the Divine Office, or public praying of the Rosary? And is there an objective superiority of the one term over the other, other than the fact that one is a clearer cognate of the Latin, while the other is more traditional and frankly more English?

As far as I’m concerned we can use both, interchangeably.

I’m pretty sure that we English speakers have traditionally used Holy Ghost because of early translations of Holy Writ, namely the King James Bible and the Douay Rheims, even though both those Bibles use both Ghost and Spirit (fewer times).  It became a matter of common parlance. People memorized traditional prayers with Ghost.  We sang hymns with Ghost.

Ghost, related to German Geist (which is used today for the Holy Spirit), in its roots is any sort of spirit.  Ghost often translated Bible Greek pneuma and Latin spiritus.

I think we should also use archaic words in our prayers, private and congregational.  Prayer should be from and of the heart, but we can use he richness of our language to express ourselves, even in solidarity with our forebears.

Any way, I don’t think all the old words are about to give up the ghost quite yet.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. JBS says:

    The word “ghost” also helps specify the Third Person as a distinct person, rather than as just some vague presence of God roaming about the natural world. We refer to the “spirit of the age” or “teen spirit”, but “ghost” usually means a single person, even if he or she is supposedly haunting you.

  2. JesusFreak84 says:

    I’ve known some parents who say “Holy Spirit” because the idea of ghost in popular culture scares their younger children. I personally will never lose sleep over this.

  3. Gregorius says:

    Though I much prefer the traditional rites, one thing I just don’t understand is the insistence of using archaic-language translations. I don’t have any strong feelings one way or the other, but using “Spirit” instead of “Ghost” is not going to give you the modernist cooties.

  4. Nicholas says:

    I’ve always said Spirit, as I learned from my dad, but my paternal grandmother uses Ghost.

    Most of my friends my age say Spirit, so I would guess that it is a young person thing.

  5. slainewe says:

    I strongly agree with JBS above. We need help forming a relationship with the Third Person of the Godhead. Calling Him by a word which generally indicates a person (ghost), rather than by a word which generally does not indicate a person (spirit), may help our devotion. This practice definitely helped me.

  6. APX says:

    I use “spirit” because that was what I was taught. If it says “ghost”, I saw ghost. If it says “spirit” I say spirit. I don’t understand the big objection to the term “Holy Spirit” when that is what a prayer says.

  7. JPK says:

    When I think of Ghost, I think of ancient monasteries hidden within dark forests somewhere in Central Europe, whereas Spirit conjures up images of bright sunny Mediterranean beaches.

  8. Carolina Geo says:

    I grew up hearing and using “Holy Spirit” almost exclusively. Then I learned that the term “Holy Ghost” irritates some liberals in the Church. That was enough to sell me on it; it’s what I mostly use now. JBS makes some good points above as well.

  9. Giuseppe says:

    I’d rather picture the 3rd person as a Ghost than a Pigeon, which is how I thought of him when I was a kid. If He needs to be pictured as a bird, then I’d go for a beautiful Northern cardinal.

  10. Deacon Augustine says:

    While the word “ghost” is related to the German “Geist” it is more closely derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “ghast”. “Ghast” means “breath” and is still found in original form in the word “aghast” which literally means “breathless.” “Breath” is also one meaning of the Greek “pneuma” which we usually translate as “spirit”. “Breathe on me Breath of God.”, as the words of the hymn say.

    As “ghost”, “ghast”, “pneuma”, “spiritus”, “spirit” are synonymous, there is no theological implication of using one or the others. But for the rad-trads who want to see the restoration of the pre-1066 Anglo-Saxon usage of the vernacular, “Ghost” is a must for a first step.

  11. Boniface says:

    This is one of the few extra-legal issues relating to the EF that I feel somewhat strongly about. I know all the arguments for and against, some of which have been well expressed by others above, but here is what I offer for consideration:

    -it’s a translation issue, and translations are living things
    -in contemporary culture, “ghost” in the older English sense has largely lost its meaning, replaced instead with something that smacks of Halloween vulgarity, childhood fears, and the paranormal, which is frequently (and rightly, in this case) mocked by the very kind of people (freethinkers) most in need of conversion today. So associating God with such things is less than helpful
    -Some pre-Vatican II missals already were using “Spirit,” so if some are using Ghost as a bulwark against creeping Modernism… (lol)
    -most importantly to me, insisting on Ghost smacks of rigid antiquarianism. It’s one more needless thing that can turn off a newcomer to the EF – and I bring a lot of first-timers to it, so am sensitive to this. As an obvious cognate to the Latin that has a living equivalence in contemporary usage, this one seems a “no-brainer,” as they say.
    -lastly, score one for Latin influence over barbarian into modern English, haha! (There was a movement of anti-Catholic, proto-racist Eugenics sympathizers in the early 20th century who attempted to remove as many Latinate words from English as possible.)

    I am here talking only about public use of Spirit over Ghost.

  12. JamesM says:

    I personally say Ghost as a first instinct but I wouldn’t lose sleep over either. I certainly wouldn’t feel the need to ‘correct’ a prayer.

    Anyway, isn’t changing the language in prayers to suit our own taste what liberals do?

  13. Geoffrey says:

    I personally believe in being as faithful to the Latin as possible. “Spiritus” = Spirit seems pretty cut and dry to me. Now don’t get me started on “world without end”!

  14. The Masked Chicken says:

    “As “ghost”, “ghast”, “pneuma”, “spiritus”, “spirit” are synonymous, there is no theological implication of using one or the others. But for the rad-trads who want to see the restoration of the pre-1066 Anglo-Saxon usage of the vernacular, “Ghost” is a must for a first step.”

    Well, don’t be so quick about that. There is a concept called, “linguistic broadening'” whereby meanings accrete to words, over time. In the modern world, spirit and ghost are not totally synonymous. For instance, the title of Karl Popper’s book, The Ghost in the Machine, sounds silly rendered as, The Spirit in the Machine. Ghosts, in modern usage, are more personal, whereas spirits are more impersonal. Ghosts do not animate others, whereas spirits, do. Think of the Danny Kaye movie, Wonder Man, where his twin brother’s raucous spirit temporarily takes over the shy bookworm. Saying, “his twin brother’s ghost,” doesn’t quite play the same way. A ghost is more, “substantial,” than a spirit. It is true that the Greek, pneuma, means, primarily, breath, but the Jewish term, ruwach, specifically means wind, mind, spirit, or breath and not a ghost, in the modern sense. One does not say that, “the ghost of God danced over the water.” When the, “Spirit of God,” is mentioned in the Old Testament, the word used is, universally, ruwach. The Greek, pneuma, is used in a more immaterial sense, especially with reference to God’s animating essence, power, or agency.

    The LXX translates ruwach by pneuma, but there are subtle differences in usage because the Greek and Jewish anthropology were not identical.

    I prefer, Holy Spirit, when God is acting, but, Holy Ghost, when God is resting or referred to as an individual.

    The Chicken

  15. Bob B. says:

    Reminds me of when I taught Religion to 7th and 8th graders. I would have them read passages from their (school required) NAB and I would read the same ones from my Douay and let them comment on the differences. They always came to the same conclusion afterwards that, while the words were different, (after they were defined, as necessary) the passages had much more beauty in the Douay. They would often then ask, “Why did we change?”

  16. acricketchirps says:

    Masked C’s argument for use depending on context IS very persuasive, but I still think Carolina G’s imperative (annoys the libs) carries the day.

  17. Gerard Plourde says:

    Although “Holy Ghost” has a long history, the fact remains that the word “ghost” has been so co-opted by its association with the provrbial “things that go bump in the night” that its usage in relation to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity is almost certainly beynond redemption.

  18. JBS says:

    Perhaps this is really about the structural sin of cultural imperialism with its accompanying prejudices and coded expressions of ethnic superiority. Words introduced by the Normans tend to be valued over their Anglo-Saxon synonyms. For example, when asked how one is doing today, one is acceptably doing “well”, but unacceptably doing “good”. May the ghost of King Harold rest in peace.

  19. APX says:

    “. Now don’t get me started on “world without end”!”

    I used to wonder how “per omnia sæcula sæculorum” meant “world without end” until I was listening to an older folk Mass “Great Amen” that used the actual “forever and ever”.

  20. bkalafut says:

    “Holy Ghost” always struck my (Chicagoan) ears as being a Protestant expression, part of that faux-KJV register (or jive talk) they use for their rambling, extemporaneously improvised prayers.

    I know now as a grown man that this is not correct linguistic history, that “Holy Ghost” is not a Cranmer-era invention like “world without end”, but the cultural aversion to it remains.

  21. Maynardus says:

    Wait – isn’t everything these days about how it makes one feel? Personally I just like the sound of “Holy Ghost” better than “Holy Spirit” when spoken aloud, at least in prayer. It’s just more felicitous to the ear – or my semi-pious ears anyway. I have no problem with the connotation of either one, although as a homeschooling father of six I tend to use “Spirit” when (attempting to) explain a theological concept to the young’uns…

    Also – not for nuthin’ – it does irritate all of the right people ;-)

  22. Marissa says:

    Depending on the cadence of the prayer, one synonym can sound better than two, and vice-versa.

  23. Deacon Augustine says:

    TMC, I accept your points about “linguistic broadening”. Add to that the fact that it can be virtually impossible to get a totally accurate translation of a word in one language into another – used to have this discussion with Greek friends a lot regarding translation of Greek concepts into Latin and then into English. Even English synonyms can have subtle differences of meaning or emphasis.

    Some good points have been made about the word “ghost” being co-opted by association with ghouls. But “spirit” has also been co-opted these last 50 years by association with a particular interpretation of an ecumenical council.

  24. Mariana2 says:

    Loads of lovely Catholic prayers don’t seem to have been translated into Swedish, so I say many prayers in English and definitely prefer Holy Ghost and Thee, Thou and Thine. And phases like For as much as Thou hast vouchsafed…. And World without end.

    Ghast. “Gast” is in Swedish what goes bump in the night : ), although spöke is more commonly used. Spöke = spook.

  25. John Nolan says:

    Those who learned their prayers before 1964 will automatically say ‘Holy Ghost’. ‘Holy Spirit’ dates from the time that the vernacular was first introduced into the Mass. At the same time we in England were told to adopt the Anglican practice of saying ‘Ah-men’ (a nineteenth-century affectation) instead of ‘Ay-men’ (the traditional English pronunciation used by Catholics and Nonconformists alike).

    Not long ago I heard a nun quote the last two lines of Hopkins’s ‘God’s Grandeur’ and change ‘Ghost’ to ‘Spirit’ which is surely taking post-V2 political correctness too far. Mind you, by the time I made my first Confession in 1958 we no longer asked ‘penance and abs0lution of you, my ghostly Father.’

  26. JARay says:

    When I was a boy there were people around me who used “thee, thou, thy” in their everyday speech. I learned my prayers using those words and it irritates me when I hear “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you.” For me it has always been “The Lord is with Thee” etc.etc..
    I grew up in the North of England. I did however change Holy Ghost to Holy Spirit because it seemed that everyone else was doing it, but I am tending to revert to what I grew up with.

  27. asperges says:

    In the UK before the changes, Holy Ghost was the third person if the Blessed Trinity as in the sign of the Cross invariably and in the conclusion of Collects. ‘Spirit’ was used where Ghost sounded odd – eg Pentecost: “…light of the Holy Ghost.. Grant by that same spirit…” It did not smack of Protestantism and, incidentally, our use if English and theirs not surprisingly were similar. Usage in the USA may have been different.

    The ghastly old ICEL translations in the 70s abolished ‘Holy Ghost’ overnight but its continued use by the traditional continued. It was bad enough that the old liturgy, associated in the minds of many English with our Catholic forefathers, was being attacked and yet more irritating that the prayers we used and they used should be subject suddenly to unnecessary changes.

    I do not see ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ as wholly archaisms (they are common enough in popular speech in parts of the north still). It is good to formalise prayers if we must have vernacular liturgy. Special language usage applies in Portuguese, French and other modern languages still today. The TV blandness and semi-literate English we put up with until the latest improvements after Benedict – were all a deliberate part of desacralising the Mass and dumbing down of worship. Private prayer is a different matter.

    Now after decades of poor English in the liturgy (and in schools), we are probably too far removed from the older translations to insist on their restoration. Words such as deign, beseech, grant, intercede have their place or not according to choice. Nevertheless we had no problems with these expressions nor the title of Holy Ghost, but today, it seems, we do.

  28. WmHesch says:

    It’s unfortunate the name of a Divine Person would become a trad watchword- especially in communal prayer (e.g., rosary, office). Almost reeks of blasphemy if you’re trying to make a political point.

    Those who shun “Spirit” because of supposed secular connotations (and I’ve always found that line of reasoning silly) to be the same folks who root for Latin cognates in other words (such as consubstantial and omnipotent).

    Perhaps a poll is in order?? Personally, I’m a trad proficient in Latin who prefers “Spirit”.

  29. thymos says:

    St. Thomas refers to the action of spiration in Given the importance of the procession of the Three Persons, I think it is fitting to use the name Holy Spirit.

  30. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Deacon Augustine did well to mention “pre-1066 Anglo-Saxon”. The first Anglo-Saxon or Old English dictionary I checked notes ‘se halga gast’, so there may be a millennium of using it before the Douay-Rheims translation was made. It would be interesting to look at Old English Scriptural translations and those translations of the Latin Gospel lesson Alfric made at the start of his sermons (as well as poetic use). The same dictionary gives for ‘gast’ the range of “breath; mind, spirit, soul; life; spirit, angel, sprite, demon” as well as ‘gastcund’ and ‘gastlic’ both as meaning ‘spiritual’, ‘gastlufe’ (‘spiritual love’) and ‘gastgiefu'(‘gift of the Spirit’).

    And we should not forget the contemporary combination ‘ghost writer’ as well as the fixed phrases ‘give up the ghost’ ( as Fr Z showed) and ‘not the ghost of a chance’.

    Nor in thinking of ‘spirit’ should we neglect such possibly misleading uses or associations as ‘spiritualism’, ‘spirit world’, ‘spirit guide’, ‘spiritual but not religious’…

    I would second Fr. Z in saying, “As far as I’m concerned we can use both, interchangeably”, while admitting that in a given instance one may be preferable to the other.

    It seems a shame not to try to learn the (historical) breadth of both and to help others to, as well, also to the purging of misleading associations.

    Mariana2, while German has ‘Geist’ and Dutch ‘geest’, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic have ‘ande’/’and’/’andi’ – where do they come from? (Any connection with ‘gand’ as in ‘Gandalf’, by any chance?)

  31. Mariana2 says:

    Gand alf = light elf, elf of light.

    The Holy Ghost is den helige Ande in Swedish, a quick check of etymology dictionaries gives the origin of the word as ‘breathing’. To breathe is ‘andas’ in Swedish.

  32. AlexanderAerarius says:

    “Holy Ghost” sounds Protestant to me. I don’t object to it in principle, but, all things being equal, I definitely prefer Holy Spirit.

  33. Subdeacon Joseph K. says:

    I love the word “ghost.” After all, it helps to understand that the Scriptures are “Ghost written” – Holy Ghost, that is. He signed them with his initials – “H. G.” or “H. Ghost,” I believe.

  34. kat says:

    My parents, being among those who fought against the changes as they were introduced in the 60’s and 70’s in their own church, were/are (Dad is dead) very sensitive to the fact that in our area, the word was Ghost until the changes of Vatican 2, and then it became Spirit. Hence, it was one of “those” changes. Thus, I was of course brought up with Ghost, though I myself am not scandalized by Spirit. I think fighting over little things like that takes away from the important fight over doctrine, and “we believe as we pray.” When someone would get upset about Holy Spirit I would point out that the Latin DOES say Spiritus, not “Ghostus”!

  35. BillG says:

    I tend to agree with Boniface. Ghost / Spirit is a translation issue and, while raised with “Ghost” am not disturbed by “Spirit”. On the other hand, the use of the hieratic – ‘Thee’, ‘Thou’, ‘Thine’, at least in reference to God, is a stylistic issue. I mourn the plebeian use of ‘you’ and ‘your’ – not even capitalized – in reference to God. It’s one more instance of horizontalism in the liturgy.

  36. robtbrown says:

    I always use “Spirit”, if for no other reason than Karl Rahner’s book that contains the basis for all his errors is “Geist in Welt”.

  37. Priam1184 says:

    I am also a fan of the archaic. And I like bringing words from the past, especially words that are more evocative, into the present in prayer because after all the same God who heard my ancestors pray these words is listening to me right now at this very moment. That is why I am such a big fan of praying in Latin. Those Latin words are often times the exact same words that Thomas Aquinas or with some of them even Ambrose or Augustine or Jerome used so many centuries ago. It is like, in a small way, the whole Church throughout its long history is praying those words with me.

    That said, English is not and never has been a liturgical language of the Catholic Church and sometimes the archaic just sounds archaic. The word ‘ghost’ just doesn’t convey the same meaning as ‘spirit’; this is a change that I think has been an improvement.

  38. LOTH says:

    I’m wondering about the sounds. Wish I knew IPA for phonemes or whatever they’re called.

    Here is my three cents’ worth on English. Ghost has an H. This to me means a slightly increased breathing out or down: a conferring of breath. This is why IMO Abram was changed to AbraHam. Sara to SaraH. The German Geist to English gHost.

    I don’t know if any my phonetic thoughts hold up in the Clementine Vulgate or Douay-Rheims, or if any of this is indicated in Hebrew and Greek. I guess this what the funny little marks mean in the latter.

    It may also be that pronunciations of letters was different in English of the D-R period than now.

    I guess translators of the Bible can be concerned with sounds as well as trying to convey concepts and adapting figures of speech.

  39. Imrahil says:

    Only, dear LOTH, that “ghost”, as far as the gh is concerned, was prior to g in German geist.

    G in German is here a result of the High-German sound-shift and comes from something actually a “gh sound”, which in later times has been rendered in different ways in English, sometimes coincidentally alike German (as in “ghost”), sometimes differently (as in “laugh”), sometimes becoming mute (as in “eight”). The nearest modern equivalent is probably ch in Scottish “loch”, though.

  40. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Thank you!

    I’ve been looking in two printed etymological dictionaries about the history of ‘ghost’ and its relation to other languages.

    To Deacon Augustine’s ‘aghast’ I can add (which I should have thought of already) ‘ghastly’, and further two Shakespearean uses: ‘gasted’ in King Lear (II.i) and ‘gastness’ in Othello (V.i). (About the divergence of ‘ghast’ and ‘ghost’ I can say nothing.)

    Apparently ‘ghost’/’gast’/’geest’/’Geist’ are exclusively West Germanic (which may explain the difference from Swedish and other northern tongues), with attempts made to connect them with Gothic ‘usgaisjan’ (‘to terrify’).

    Interestingly, one of these dictionaries (a scholarly but compact paperback) notes that ‘gast’ seems to have been chosen in the Church in England in Anglo-Saxon times to translate Latin ‘spiritus’.

    That leaves me wondering whether Dutch and German owe their uses of ‘geest’ and ‘Geist’ to the efforts of Anglo-Saxon missionaries among their ancestors, of which there were many, starting with St. Wilfrid, followed by St. Willibrord, and St. Boniface, and so on (including St. Liutger, whose Feast we just had on 26 March, though a translation feast is coming up on 24 April).

    While (so far as I know) Priam1184 is right to suggest English was not anciently a liturgical language (in contrast to Slavonic, for a prominent missionary example), it was – and more or less distantly related West Germanic tongues were as well, I presume – used to help the people understand the Latin liturgy and Scripture brought to them.

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